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THEATER REVIEW: “My Name Is Asher Lev” is a winner for North Coast Rep

Art and religion are often at odds. For Asher Lev (Craig De Lorenzo), a Hasidic Jew, the God-given compulsion to draw leads to conflict with both parents and Hasidic strictures about art.

Aaron Posner’s adaptation of the Chaim Potok novel “My Name Is Asher Lev” is in its San Diego premiere through June 26 at North Coast Repertory Theatre. David Ellenstein, who directed the adaptation of Potok’s “The Chosen” in 2004, helms this excellent production.

Ellenstein also makes a welcome return to the stage, playing multiple characters including Asher’s father Aryeh.

Born with a gift his father does not respect and his mother Rivkeh (Crystal Sershen) fears – Aryeh pronounces Asher’s efforts “narishkeit” (foolishness) – but Asher maintains that “my dearest friends were Eberhard and Crayola.”

Finally, when it seems clear Asher will not give up his art, the family’s Brooklyn Rebbe changes Asher’s life by introducing him to famous artist Jacob Kahn, who becomes a mentor to the boy.

The play delineates well the conflict between the artist’s need to create freely and the religion’s teaching about a holy life, a tussle which threatens to split the family when Asher invites his parents to his show in which Christian images appear.

“Be a great painter,” Kahn tells him. “It’s the only justification for all the pain you are about to cause.”

Though the show includes many dramatic and salient encounters between Asher, his parents and others, this is more monologue than play; kudos to De Lorenzo, who as Asher holds the stage easily and with great assurance.

Ellenstein is excellent as Aryeh, the Rebbe, the artist Kahn and Asher’s Uncle Yitzchok.

Sershen’s quiet dignity as Rivkeh plays well off Ellenstein’s more volatile Aryeh; she’s also wonderfully effective as gallery owner Anna Schaeffer and as the model Rachel.

This show is also fine technically. Marty Burnett’s set (with different shapes of canvases propped around) is evocative and perfect; Matt Novotny’s lighting, Megan Schnid’s costumes and M. Scott Grabau’s sound design make their own fine contributions.

“My gift is demonic and divine,” Asher finally concludes. “I am who I am.”

The details

“My Name Is Asher Lev” plays through June 26 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.

Wednesday and Sunday at 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

For tickets, call (858) 481-1055 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.